29/11/2004
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A Brit's Eye View of Cape May: The Diary of an English Birder

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This is the third series of extracts from the journal of British birdwatcher, Graham Gordon, who spent almost nine years working and birding in Cape May, New Jersey, USA. The dates here refer to 1997: the first complete year Graham spent in Cape May, from January first to December thirty-first. A fuller work, describing the events of Cape May throughout the birdwatching year is still in preparation.

November

Cape May's 'rarity season' comes, on average, a month later than it does in Britain. Having successfully 'twitched' the Le Conte's Sparrow at the end of October, and, after a lot of effort, the Violet-green Swallow, one of my major stated aims for the month of November was to now find my own rarity. Between 1984 - when Dave Sibley found a Townsend's Warbler at the Beanery - and 1996 there were at least twenty New Jersey Rarities Committee birds in the month of November (what we might call 'initials birds' in Britain). In November 1996, I saw White-winged Dove from the southern United States; and Ash-throated Flycatcher and Western Kingbird from the west. In earlier years, Black-throated Grey Warbler, Mountain Bluebird, Wood Stork, Cave Swallow and Bell's Vireo, among others, had all been seen.

Now that the majority of the autumn tourists had departed Cape May, and the work schedule had become nothing more than a minor inconvenience, it was with much excitement I contemplated the prospect of some strenuous full days in the field once again. Only Dave Andersen and Andre Robinson remained of the Brit birders - and while their minds were mostly on a forthcoming trip to Ecuador, they were clearly looking forward to the next thirty days as much as me.

On November 5th I embarked upon my first real major lap of the Cape Island peninsula since the middle of May. I walked from the Meadows, along Sunset Boulevard to Higbee's, Hidden Valley, and the Beanery.

'Marched' around the island might have been a better word...taking advantage of the birding opportunities thrown up by November requires a change of tactics to early fall. Searching for rarities is a sport and a challenge. No longer is it worth sitting in one spot waiting for birds to come to me: the whole island becomes fair game; and covering ground the key to success.

The most numerous bird of the morning was, not surprisingly, Myrtle Warbler - many flying straight across the Bay, others alighting on their favourite bayberry bushes for a few minutes before moving off on to the next. More than 50 American Pipits and 20 Purple Finches came in off the sea; and 2 Vesper Sparrows were found at the Point, feeding on a garden lawn.

At Higbee's, there were a dozen Hermit Thrushes; 15 Eastern Phoebes and more than 25 Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted through the woods. Three uncommon migrants then appeared - a Lincoln's Sparrow and an Orange-crowned Warbler turned up near the pond: and, then, just as I was about to leave the parking lot, I saw a White-breasted Nuthatch, clinging to a tree, near the entrance road. Despite being reasonably common to the north of Cape May, White-breasted Nuthatch is unusually scarce south of the Cape May canal. In good Red-breasted Nuthatch years, the odd White-breast strays down with them: but this individual happened to be only the third one I've seen here (another being in the garden at Windsor Avenue in November '95, in our tiny, stunted pear tree...alongside a Red-breast for company).

Around mid-morning, rising columns of warm air encouraged a kettle of over 100 Turkey Vultures to start forming across the island. Vultures don't like to get up too early (especially at this time of year when the mornings start off so cold), and often it will be nine o'clock before we see the first ones spiralling low over the Beanery. Most birds of prey don't like migrating over the open water of the Delaware Bay, and Vultures, in particular, require the benefit of the right wind direction, and sufficient heat, to give them lift before crossing. Sometimes a group forms and looks like they are about to cross, only to find they haven't gained enough height, and have to circle round and try again, maybe in the next hour...or maybe next day.

It was late afternoon by the time I arrived at the Beanery. Sparrows chattering away in the hedgerows aside, things had quietened down considerably since this morning. A Western Kingbird was perched distantly on treetops to the east, and the morning's Vultures were now searching for somewhere suitable to roost, having failed to cross the Bay for another day - if, indeed, that had been their intention.

In contrast to the soon-to-be-sleeping Vultures, American Robins were preparing for their own nocturnal migrational journeys. Having swallowed their last porcelain berry, or taken their last sip of water, they were now gathering noisily in the treetops, awaiting the dusk, each facing the same direction, like red-breasted sentinels. Three or four groups, several thousand strong, had already taken off from the woods, lending a real feeling of imminence to their autumn migration. In spring and summer, feeding on garden lawns, Robins recall the (European) Blackbird in shape and character. Now, in late fall, their allegiance with the wilder, more migratory Scandinavian thrushes becomes apparent: their calls a combination of the Redwing's high, thin zeep and the Fieldfare's chuckle or chack.

I spent another solid day in the field four days later, setting off early through Second Avenue, and striding past the Meadows as the light was coming up. Skirting the Point, I headed purposefully towards Higbee's, via Davey's Lake, and out through the Cape May cement works.

Sunrise over the reedbed at the Cape May Meadows. (Photo: Graham Gordon)

9th November The passage of diurnal migrants accompanying me through the Meadows this morning was as impressive as it has been all autumn. The clear blue skies were full of Blackbirds, Goldfinches, House Finches, and Pipits: the Eastern Bluebird count was pushing three figures; and 2 separate Horned Larks flew along the dunes, followed later by 2 Snow Buntings. At the Meadows, a Dickcissel was in the hedge adjacent to the parking lot.

I approached Higbee's from the south, along the dunes from the Concrete Ship. There were 50 Slate-coloured Juncos and 80 Cedar Waxwings feeding around the entrance to the first field, and a flock of 50 Eastern Bluebird stacked up on bare trees either side of the track took the day's tally past 150. I was three-quarters of the way around the second field when I noticed a distant, chunky, medium-sized bird in treetops opposite. A glance through binoculars told me immediately what it was - a Tanager with wing bars...a female Western Tanager: about the twelfth to occur in Cape May, south of the canal. This was my rarity: not an absolute 'mega-rarity', for sure, but undoubtedly the first for several years. I knew plenty of birders who would want to see it.

I was standing at the most remote outpost on the island, two miles from the nearest public phone box, and I expected it was going to cost me a minimum of an hour's birding time to put the news out. Thankfully, one of the householders on Sunset Boulevard allowed me to call from their house; and, happier now, I headed back to the Tanager spot and wait. On my way back, I almost stepped on a Grasshopper Sparrow flying from under my feet: then perching in the grass, not ten yards away. I would gladly have watched it for longer, but it dropped to cover, and out of view.

In the half hour it took the first birders to arrive, the Tanager disappeared, and was now nowhere to be seen. Satisfied I had fulfilled my obligations, I moved on to Hidden Valley, leaving them to their search.

There was little to see at Hidden Valley and the Beanery, and it was almost dark by the time I got back to town. I went directly to my friend Dave Andersen's house to see if there was any recent news. I heard the Tanager went missing for five hours, and only showed up late in the day, flying in with a couple of Baltimore Orioles. Although I didn't harbour real doubts as to what I'd seen it was still a relief to know I hadn't been hallucinating!

I made my way home, tired and elated. It was then I made the best discovery of the day...Ben and Jerry's 'New York Super Fudge Chunk' ice-cream on special offer at the corner store. As I sat there, enjoying my celebratory tub of 'delicious chocolate ice-cream with chocolate covered hazelnuts, walnuts and fudge chunks', I felt a different sensation of satisfaction arising within me. Now, I could let the events of the day wash over me. It had been a thoroughly absorbing day's birding, of the kind I've never really quite undertaken with the same intensity in the years since leaving England. Concentrating hard, binoculars constantly at the ready, scouring likely-looking spots, and walking rapidly past more sterile patches (rarely taking time to look at the commoner birds I've already spent many hours watching earlier in the year). In this kind of mood, birding seems to become instinctive and intuitive, as I change direction and focus in harmony with the shifting contours of the day, planning and changing routes every five minutes. Sometimes I won't check a hedge because the light is too bad...perhaps not take a certain trail, just because it doesn't feel right. Birding in this fashion - no longer just a bird 'watcher' - more than at any other time, I experience myself 'at one' with the day and the environment, in the true manner of a huntsman or a sportsman in tune with his milieu. The rare bird find is a target, but it is really only a part of the equation.

A couple of days before the Western Tanager, a bird arrived in Cape May that for many will go down as the 'Bird of the Year' - a seriously rare bird, not just one of interest to birders south of the canal, but one that led to a number of people chartering planes all the way from the west coast United States. Easterly winds and gloomy conditions on November 6th ushered me to the lifeguard station at the base of Windsor Avenue for an early morning seawatch. Hundreds of Gannets were flying eastwards into the Atlantic, mostly in first winter-plumage. Numbers of Royal Terns and Forster's Terns hanging around offshore were as high as they had been all year, and 3 distinctly different Parasitic Jaegers (Arctic Skuas) could be seen, harrying a more distant group of terns, two-thirds of the way to the horizon.

I left the seawatch for the Meadows. A much-later-than-average Common Tern was off Second Avenue jetty, and hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds were migrating along the dunes in big, noisy groups. Long lines of Double-crested Cormorants were still passing overhead, and over 40 pipits came in off the sea. At the Meadows, a female Lesser Scaup had arrived on the pool to the east of the morning path, and 2 late (Barn) Swallows flew low across the marsh, presumably the last I would see of them this year. A large flock of Tree Swallows was circling about in the gloom, and I thought for a second I might have picked up a Purple Martinwith them - but I lost it, and, reassured it was far too late for that species, I passed it off.

Minutes later, I spotted the same bird again. This time I was more assured: high in the air, I watched it for several minutes, noting its larger size and broad-based wings. The Tree Swallows were paying constant attention to it - harassing it, and generally letting it know it wasn't welcome - and this fact alone continued to sow seeds of doubt in my mind. I couldn't imagine the robust, dashing, falcon-like Purple Martins of summer being bullied around like this. Perhaps it just looked as out-of-place to the Swallows at this time of year as it did to me...? I got back to the house, looked in Sibley's Birds of Cape May, and convinced myself that Cape May's latest-ever Purple Martin (by three weeks!) had set the seal on an interesting morning.

A few hours later there was a knock at the door from Dave Andersen.

"What is it this time, Dave?" I asked, remembering the Violet-green Swallow from October. I wondered if I still had the will to go back out again now I was indoors reading.

"Grey-breasted Martin, at the Meadows!"

I couldn't believe it! My first thought was 'I've never heard of Grey-breasted Martin, so it must be a first for the States?', and the second thought was '...and it was obviously that 'Purple Martin' I had this morning!"

If this had happened to me in England ten years ago, I might well have been tempted to give up birding there and then! In the competitive climate I grew up in, it was regarded as almost as much of a sin to overlook a real rarity as it was to try to turn a common bird into one. Fortunately, in the time in-between, I had learned to take my successes and failures a little bit less to heart, and I even managed to feel a perverse amusement that lightened my current predicament.

I made my own way back to the Meadows, though...I didn't want to talk to anyone in the mood I found myself in. The soreness of my circumstances was eased slightly when I learnt that a birder as experienced as local expert Paul Lehman had made the same mistake as me - telephoning Jim Dowdell to let him know there was a late Purple Martin hanging over the Meadows. Alongside the State, Year and Life lists most of us keep, Jim is one of those birders who likes to keep a list of birds he sees in each of the twelve months of the year - an incentive he swears helps him find a number of rare birds simply because he happens to be out pursuing something common at an odd time of year. A Purple Martin in Cape May in November is certainly unusual. Jim chased the 'Purple Martin' for four hours, finally relocating it at Cape May Point in fading light. With the benefit of close examination, he began to sense this was not a Purple Martin after all. It looked too pale for one thing (I think that was my main worry earlier in the day): it was too cleanly marked below; and despite the poor light, it showed a clearly defined chest-band - a feature no Purple Martin should ever possess.

I spoke to both Paul and Jim later in the evening and learnt that considerable speculation still reigned over the bird's identity. Paul seemed to think it was either a Grey-breasted or a Brown-chested Martin from South America, while Jim was now expressing caution, suggesting it may turn out to be a Purple Martin after all. Despite my own earlier 'mistake', my gut feeling was that this was, indeed, something very rare.

Next day I woke at 7:30 and wondered what to do first? I wasn't in the mood to spend all morning looking for one bird - even a very rare one - so I decided I would leave its relocation to someone else, and go, instead, to look at the sea. After fifteen minutes staring blankly at the waves, I gave up, and decided to find out if there was any news or not. I tried three different telephone numbers from a call-box on the seafront, and got no reply from any of them. Convinced I was now the only birder on the island not watching the Martin, I hurried to the Meadows on foot. I passed Paul Lehman's house on Sunset Boulevard, and saw him frantically pacing his balcony, telephone in hand. This could be the turning point of the day...Present or absent? Rare bird or common?

Paul looked happy: "It's a Brown-chested Martin," he shouted. "I left it ten minutes ago down at the Point...it's flying around the church".

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I broke into a run, and gathered myself mentally to jog the mile and a half all the way to the Point, if necessary. Suddenly, Kevin Karlson's big Ford truck pulled up on the kerb behind me. He had just received the news himself, and was in as big a hurry as me - only he was moving an awful lot faster! I barely had time to slam the door, and we were off in hot pursuit.

We arrived at St.Peter's church to find the Brown-chested Martin flying powerfully up and down the dunes. After all of yesterday's uncertainty, this bird was something to behold after all. A bird that should have been 3,000 miles away in South America had leapfrogged its way past several southern States, and arrived, unannounced, in Cape May, New Jersey. We'd seen rare visitors from the north in Cape May before, birds from the southwest, even the east (Whiskered Tern, first for USA, summer 1993), but this would forever go down as one of the most unexpected, furthest-travelled birds ever to make it to this tiny outpost on the New Jersey peninsula.

I took my place in the crowd of forty, watching the bird's every move, snatching insects just feet above our heads. It had chosen one of the few sheltered spots on the island to feed, and Lehman had used his skill and judgement in selecting the best place to look for it first thing this morning. In better light than yesterday, and with the weight of considerable overnight research behind him, he had identified it immediately, and dashed home to share the news. At exactly the same moment he'd relocated it, he was astonished to find no fewer than 4 Cave Swallows sharing its same clifftop escarpment. Cave Swallow is another rare - although much less unexpected - visitor from the south. This, too, was another new bird for me.

I watched the 4 Cave Swallows, the Martin, an exceptionally late Cliff Swallow, 20 Tree, and one Barn Swallow, and thought about my British friends whose departure I had lamented in mid-October. I wondered what they were doing now. How nice it would have been to share this little piece of history with them. The local birders in Cape May sometimes speak with great fondness of the memory of the 4 Cave Swallows and the Violet-green Swallow that turned up together in November 1994, but I think this current ensemble went on to upstage that older legend by some considerable distance - especially, considering we also saw a Violet-green last month. It was odd to think in this moment how, only a few weeks ago, I had been jealous of my friends when they were headed off to the excitement of the Scillies.

The rare-bird action still hadn't finished yet. On 12th November I set off early from Windsor Avenue, taking the route along Sixth Avenue towards the Beanery, instead of my usual start to the day at the Meadows.

I was exceptionally thorough as I went along, scrutinizing every inch of ground, and checking carefully in areas I might normally walk straight past. There was still a smell of rarities in the air, and I wanted to be the first to find them. I stopped at the entrance to the Beanery for a chat with Andre Robinson who was on his way to Higbee's with the same idea as me. We parted, wished one another luck, then went our separate ways.

In the woods at the Beanery, a handsome male Black-throated Green Warbler and an American Redstart were exceptionally late, but in the fields, no more than a handful of Swamp Sparrows and Song Sparrows could be found, at best. I returned to the main road, happy I'd covered the prime areas, confident I'd seen everything the place had to offer.

When I came to the spot where I was speaking to Andre an hour earlier, I encountered three birdwatchers peering intently at a bed of low shrubs. It didn't take long to learn they had discovered an Ash-throated Flycatcher, out in the open, in the very spot my friend and I were stood talking. How could we have missed such an obvious bird? This was the fourth autumn in succession this formerly very rare visitor from south-western USA had turned up in Cape May so it wasn't of the same magnitude as the Brown-chested Martin, but it would have looked very nice on my own, personal, bird-finding portfolio.

I watched the Flycatcher for ten minutes, offered my congratulations to the finders, then hastened to Higbee's, still hoping for one more rarity before the day was out. Along Bayshore Road, an Evening Grosbeak landed in a roadside tree, high and partially obscured, but I reasoned I would get a better look before the year was out. (I didn't know then that this would be my only sighting of the year of this erratic fall visitor.) Two Cattle Egrets that had earlier flown over Windsor Avenue were now settled in cow pasture at Hidden Valley - and, at the corner of New England and Bayshore Roads, 500 Mourning Doves and 150 Killdeer foraged the fields. There were more White-throated Sparrows and Slate-coloured Juncos at Higbee's than there had been at the Beanery, and among them, the bonus of 2 Fox Sparrows and 2 Orange-crowned Warblers.

As I stood watching these last couple of birds, I realized, to my annoyance, I had lost the beautiful woollen scarf my girlfriend, Sinead, had knitted for me last winter. With November days starting off so cool, then warming up by midday, I had been experiencing constant problems with temperature regulation throughout this past month. My gloves were on one minute, off the next: back on as the sun went behind a cloud, off again as it came out. Stuffing my warm weather gear into my ex-army shoulder bag without making sure it was secure had already cost me a hat and two pairs of gloves this Fall. I couldn't possibly let the scarf go without some attempt at its recovery. The most plausible explanation was I'd left it at the Beanery while watching the Flycatcher...and, suddenly seeing Kevin Karlson striding purposefully towards the Western Tanager field, camera and tripod at the ready, I quickly hatched a plan. Using my knowledge of Kevin's penchant for the Myarchus Flycatcher family in general, and his taste for Ash-throateds in particular (he found last year's at the Beanery), I persuaded him to turn straight around, and drive me back to the Beanery.


The Beanery, at this time of year, displays some stunning autumn plumage! (Photo: Graham Gordon)

We pulled up at the Beanery, and I stepped out of the truck...straight to the spot I thought I'd left the scarf. No sign. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed a crowd of thirty birders trying to entice the Ash-throated Flycatcher out of the Phragmites with a tape recording of its call. 'Not a bad turn-out for an Ash-throat,' I thought to myself. Until it struck me...Tape recorder? Phragmites? This wasn't the way to go about looking for an Ash-throated Flycatcher! What was going on here?

One of the crowd filled me in on the details. Jim Dowdell had come to look for the Flycatcher, only to find himself distracted by an unfamiliar 'chip' call from inside the reedbed. Anyone who knows Jim knows that an unfamiliar call for him is certainly one worth investigating. He stopped, pished, and very soon, a bird looking remarkably like a MacGillivray's Warbler had popped up and gone straight back down again. The arriving birdwatchers had lost all interest in the Flycatcher - as I had in the scarf - and all eyes and ears were now on the reedbed, hoping for a reappearance from the mystery warbler.

I moved around to the side of the group to collect my thoughts and stand with reverential silence, all extraneous movements suppressed. In the midst of the tension, the latest news from the island was passed around like a game of Chinese whispers. I learnt that the Brown-chested Martin was still on the island - as was the Western Tanager, and 4 Cave Swallows; a White-winged Crossbill had been seen in the morning; and a Swainson's Hawk (a bird I'd still never seen) had been trapped by the hawk banders at Hidden Valley. I was undoubtedly caught in the middle of the most exciting spell of rare-bird watching in the history of Cape May, and today, 12th November, looked destined to be the most outstanding day of all. For me, personally, it was turning out to be an incredibly fitting climax to end my year in Cape May.

There was an hour of light left, and the wind had picked up from the northwest, sending the temperature down by several degrees. As the cold increased, thoughts strayed inevitably to the warmth of indoors - yet there was still a bird to be seen amidst all this talk. I was lucky to be stood in the right place when it showed itself for a full two seconds...but after that, I was restricted to no more than a glimpse of the bill, or the tip of the tail. By nightfall, it had shown a few times, but for such short bursts most left feeling frustrated rather than elated. The consensus reached was that this was indeed a MacGillivray's Warbler - a potential first for New Jersey, if not the whole of the East coast of America...not that anyone seriously doubted Jim in the first place.

The MacGillivray's Warbler at the Beanery. Taken later in the month when the bird came out and performed. (Photo: Kevin Karlson)

As the group of birders huddled together in this little corner of Cape May grew to more than fifty, mostly familiar, local faces, I realised I felt comfortable in a large crowd of birdwatchers for perhaps the first time since I left England. It is clearly something I had missed. I remembered how remarkable it is that these rarities seem to unify and focus the attention of a wide range of interests within the birding community, especially here in Cape May where passionate amateur birding enthusiasts and twitchers stand shoulder to shoulder with serious ornithologists and ardent conservationists. In Cape May, the birdwatching community as a whole resonates with an unashamed, heartfelt, almost childlike reverence for its shared chosen quarry, and every bird, whether common or rare, is received with the same sense of innocent ornithological wonder.

Noticing my shivering, Shawneen Finnegan stepped forward, and gently wrapped a spare scarf around my neck. For someone who had spent most of the past few years in Cape May birding alone - or with my handful of close British friends - it was touching, and humbling, to be fully accepted into a congregation of warm and generous American birders, and I felt a shift in my identity in the process...my whole sense of 'Englishness', my status as an 'outsider looking-in', now complemented by a feeling of completeness as an 'honorary' American. As we all stood there, bundled together in defiance of the cold, a party of 42 Tundra Swans ghosted in from the north against the darkening skies, and all fifty pairs of eyes left the MacGillivray's Warbler's hide-out to turn in unison to admire them, almost as if we were one collective organism, joined invisibly in thought. It was a last sublime moment in a week of sublime moments.

November 16th A cold, treacherous day in a howling wind that chapped lips, reddened skin, and moistened eyes. Several hundred American Goldfinches fought their way into the teeth of the wind, using the lee of the dunes as shelter. The southward passage of this small finch is just beginning to peak at this late stage of the year, extending the season of visible migration in Cape May well into the second and third weeks of November. Apart from the last few Robins and Bluebirds, the only other things on the move in any numbers are Blackbirds, Cowbirds, and Grackles.

I was prowling the Point at midday, when I was informed that no fewer than 6 Northern Goshawks had passed the Hawkwatch platform in the past hour. I got to the platform as swiftly as my legs could carry me, but there were to be no more additions to the day's score. I ended up spending the next two hours shivering away miserably, while Jerry Ligouri, this year's 'official' Hawkwatcher - to his credit - sympathized profusely, and generously made every attempt to find a seventh.

November 17th The conditions were still on the cool side when I set off for the Meadows this morning. The wind had abated a little, but was still whipping in at a fair pace from the northwest. Out to sea, a steady line of Ring-billed Gulls and (American) Herring Gulls were moving by - part of a movement that would, judging by experiences in 1995 and 1996, probably continue all day. I counted more than 1,000 American Goldfinches flying westwards along the dunes, in the first two hours of day - their melodious 'potato chip' call coinciding with every undulation. Up to 10 Pine Siskins were mixed in with them - although the sound of the wind, and the bright early morning sunshine, made them very difficult to detect. At one point, I thought I heard the call of a White-winged Crossbill, but the Goldfinches were oscillating up and down so wildly, I couldn't be sure I'd connected call with bird, and so, reluctantly, I let it go.

I stepped up to the Hawkwatch platform just as 6 Snow Bunting flew over, twinkling brown and white. A young Golden Eagle was in view, high to the northeast, remaining visible for a good fifteen minutes - the white sash on its wings and tail, and its harmonious proportions, distinguishing it from the more numerous Bald Eagle. Again, there were no Goshawks while I was there.

November 18th Higbee's in the cool, damp of early morning was echoing to the sound of Hermit Thrushes calling from the woods. Up to 6 Winter Wrens were either seen or heard in the brush at the edges of the fields, and a late Nashville Warbler was hanging around the withering clumps of goldenrod at the parking lot. I heard the MacGillivray's Warbler calling once at the Beanery, but, again, it was practically impossible to see. On the way home, a House Wren popped up alongside the road, in exactly the same patch of brambles as the first of the year back in April.

A late Nashville Warbler was hanging around the withering clumps of goldenrod at the Higbee's car parking lot.

November 19th A cool, frosty, late fall morning. Hardly the kind of day I would associate with a Northern Parula - but there it was...in sand-dunes at Cove Pool, feeding on goldenrod with half-a-dozen Myrtle Warblers. Like last week's Black-throated Green Warbler, today's Parula looked twice as eye-catching against the drabber late fall colours that surrounded it - in this case, the Myrtles and Song Sparrows looking positively dull in comparison. I watched it work its way along the frost-tinged vegetation for a few minutes, before it made its way out of sight, off towards the Meadows.

These late-staying summer migrants are an interesting feature of November in Cape May, and it becomes a great source of personal pleasure to extend the latest date for one particular species or another. Jim Dowdell, with his monthly lists, is particularly fond of this practice, and I thought I detected the slightest twinge of envy when I told him about my late Parula.

On this same date last year, I happened to be watching Cape May's latest-ever Wood Thrush at Cold Spring Campground. I had seen it the day before, and returned to the house confident I had extended the late Wood Thrush date by some considerable margin. A glance at Sibley's Birds of Cape May revealed my sighting could only matched the previous latest - a Wood Thrush having already been logged for November 18th. I went on to make the long trek back next day to find it in the same set of bushes and tick it off for the 19th! I suppose I could have gone back on the 20th to extend the date even further, but magnanimously chose to give future late-record chasers a decent fighting chance!

Wood Thrush, Higbee Beach. (Photo: Lee Amery)

November 20th Today, the briefest glimpse of a heavy Accipiter crossing Sunset Boulevard in a strong, low glide, clearly suggested Northern Goshawk...but I wasn't convinced enough to be sure. A gathering of 270 Forster's Terns on the town beach looked especially beautiful in the pale afternoon sunshine.

I finally caught up with Northern Goshawk for the year on November 25th. Jerry Ligouri had seen close to 90 individuals already this year - a new record count for the season - so it was a relief to finally get my own share of this charismatic, irruptive winter visitor. I picked the first bird up myself, as I was leaving the State Park - a big hawk, shaped somewhat like a large Sharp-shinned, rather than the straight-winged, long-tailed Cooper's. I was pretty confident with the identification, but still requested expert confirmation. Fortunately, Jerry, who rarely missed anything within three miles of the platform, had seen the same bird, and was happy to stamp his seal of approval on my sighting. The two later birds couldn't have been better if they tried - both cruising powerfully across the Bunker Pond, in front of the platform, at a convenient, low-level elevation. As well as looking huge, and immensely powerful, both exhibited a striking pale head and nape - a feature Jerry and the other hawkwatchers agreed is often a good clinching pointer.

An extensive walk through Higbee's and Hidden Valley with Dave Andersen the next day left us with a distinctly low-key, end-of-season impression, suggesting Winter was now all but upon us. A second Ash-throated Flycatcher had been found at Hidden Valley yesterday, and we saw it, easily, this morning, feeding in low shrubbery at the south end of the Hawk-banding field. There was the inevitable discussion as to whether this was, or wasn't, the bird from the Beanery earlier in the month. Jim Dowdell, the finder, thought it was a different bird, and that is good enough for me. A female Goshawk, perched massively at Higbee's, added nicely to the trio at the Hawkwatch two days ago.

The same evening, on the way home from a Thanksgiving dinner with some friends on the far side of town, l was shocked to see a Barn Owl flying low over Windsor Avenue. Having repeatedly missed one that spent two weeks around the Meadows in late summer, this was an American 'lifer' for me - an unexpected, late addition to my continuing List of Birds for 1997.

This was to be my last night in the unheated Windsor Avenue apartment. I didn't know as I closed the door next day whether I would ever be back. I trotted down the stairs for the last time, and paused to look at the rosebushes where I'd once been eye-to-eye with a Golden-crowned Kinglet: the gnarled old pear tree that once saw White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch together; and the washing lines where a memorable invasion of Blue Dasher dragonflies had perched in the summer. And many more...The memories could have gone on forever, but I stopped myself, and moved on.

Winter was now almost upon us: a Ring-billed Gull against the setting sun on a cold, late November afternoon. (Photo: Graham Gordon)
Written by: Graham Gordon